A long time ago I wrote a dissertation and then a book on the French traveler Victor Segalen. He was one of those who just up and went without much of a plan and then returned home to die mysteriously in the forest with one shoe off. His prose is lapidary as they say in French, which means it takes a fair amount of reflection and interpretation to get anywhere with it. Which is also the kind of writing I enjoy. One of my favorite ideas from Segalen is about skin. It is the only organ that can know another of its own kind of organ. Our liver can never know liverness and even our eyes cannot feel gazing and gazed upon at the same time. Except maybe in some orgasmic drug-induced cabeceo at 2 am in Buenos Aires with a live bandoneon player, a squeaking wood floor and that one waltz playing, you know the one. Uh huh.
But I digress and how can you blame me because I haven’t gotten any skin on skin contact from another adult in 19 days. No bises, no high fives, no capoeira kicks, no tango chests, no sweaty Lindy hop hands, no yoga adjustments, no hugs, not even the briefest marketplace touch as I get my pumpkin change, and so forth and so on because my mother reads this blog.
Here is the original French because it’s just so much better: la peau est un admirable organe étendu, mince et subtil ; et le seul qui puisse, pour ainsi dire, jouir de son organe jumeau : d’autres peaux, d’un grain égal ou différent, d’une tactilité, d’un dépoli sensible…Victor Segalen, Équipée.
The skin, only organ to know its twin. Subject and object meld and become one with touch, who is the agent, who is the recipient? Hard to know. What is our species going to become with so much less skin on skin touch? Here in France cheeks get bumped or even kissed a lot. [But not at all any more since March 17 2020 which was exactly 17 years after I got married at NY City Hall]. People exchange/d microdroplets of sweat, cologne, love, spit, desire day in and day out. I recently read in a tantra book that maybe we are like mushrooms, all connected in some big network and each of us is but one flower, one jutting out of fungus that only represents a node of the entire being.
But now we are all staying so far away from each other’s skin. When we first moved here and my son was feeling a little overwhelmed at all of the newness, he often said he just wanted one of my arms. As in a detachable arm that he could carry around for comfort, to the first week of school, or on his first solo shopping trip. We all need an extra arm these days. Whose would you choose?
I never understood couples who didn’t want skin on skin as often as possible but I have friends for whom other people’s skin is just too much, an intrusion, an overwhelm. Indiscriminate touch, thoughtless touch, can be a violation, an insult, a matter of total disrespect. I was talking to someone on the phone yesterday who said that when this confinement is lifted people are going to be out in the streets kissing and hugging everyone, like at the end of WWII. Wouldn’t that be exciting but I fear we are going to be wary of other people’s skin for some time to come.
As my grandmother grew older, she craved touch and we would walk around Bad Krozingen, arm in arm, squeezing close across the cobblestones. She told me to always hug and kiss and squeeze anyone older or anyone I knew who lived alone because missing touch is so hard on a person. I have taken her advice over the years, always asking permission first, and I hope that when I’m 90 someone will come around and squeeze me too.